April 13, 2009
Watching Glenn Beck of Fox News rant about "progressive fascism" and muse about armed insurrection – or listening to mainstream pundits prattle on about Barack Obama as the "most polarizing President ever," it is hard to escape the conclusion that today's U.S. news media represents a danger to the Republic.
By and large, the Washington press corps continues to function within a paradigm set in the 1980s, mostly bending to the American Right, especially to its perceived power to destroy mainstream journalistic careers and to grease the way toward lucrative jobs for those who play ball.
The parameters set by this intimidated (or bought-off) news media, in turn, influence how far Washington politicians feel they can go on issues, like health-care reform or environmental initiatives, or how risky they believe it might be to pull back from George W. Bush's "war on terror" policies.
Democratic hesitancy on these matters then enflames the Left, which expresses its outrage through its own small media, reprising the old theme that there's "not a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans – a reaction that further weakens chances for any meaningful reform.
This vicious cycle has repeated itself again and again since the Reagan era, when the Right built up its intimidating media apparatus – a vertically integrated machine which now reaches from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet. The Right accompanied its media apparatus with attack groups to go after troublesome mainstream journalists.
Meanwhile, the American Left never took media seriously, putting what money it had mostly into "organizing" or into direct humanitarian giving. Underscoring the Left's fecklessness about media, progressives have concentrated their relatively few media outlets in San Francisco, 3,000 miles away – and three hours behind – the news centers of Washington and New York.
By contrast, the Right grasped the importance of "information warfare" in a modern media age and targeted its heaviest firepower on the frontlines of that war – mostly the political battlefields of Washington – thus magnifying the influence of right-wing ideas on policymakers.
One consequence of this media imbalance is that Republicans feel they can pretty much say whatever they want – no matter how provocative or even crazy – while Democrats must be far more circumspect, knowing that any comment might be twisted into an effective attack point against them.
So, while criticism of Republicans presidents – from Ronald Reagan to the two Bushes – had to be tempered for fear of counterattacks, almost anything could be said against a Democratic president, Bill Clinton or now Barack Obama, who is repeatedly labeled a "socialist" and, according to Beck, a "fascist" for pressuring hapless GM chief executive Rick Wagoner to resign.
The Clinton Wars
The smearing of President Clinton started during his first days in office as the right-wing news media and the mainstream press pursued, essentially in tandem, "scandals" such as his Whitewater real-estate deal, the Travel Office firings and salacious accusations from Arkansas state troopers.
Through talk radio and mailed-out videos, the Right also disseminated accusations that Clinton was responsible for "murders" in Arkansas and Washington. These hateful suspicions about Clinton spread across the country, carried by the voices of Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy as well as via videos hawked by Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell.
While not accepting the "murder" tales, mainstream publications, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, often took the lead in pushing or exaggerating Clinton financial "scandals." Facing these attacks, Clinton sought some safety by tacking to the Right, which prompted many on the American Left to turn on him.
The stage was set for the Republican "revolution" of 1994, which put the GOP in charge of Congress. Only in the latter days of the Clinton administration, as the Republicans pushed for his ouster through impeachment, did a handful of small media outlets, including Consortiumnews.com and Salon.com, recast the war on Clinton as a new-age coup d'etat.
Yet, despite the evidence of that, the major American news media mocked Hillary Clinton when she complained about a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
After Clinton survived impeachment, the national press corps transferred its hostility toward Vice President Al Gore in Campaign 2000 , ridiculing him as a serial exaggerator and liar, even when that required twisting his words. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]